BOSTON STRONG

As the world turns its eyes to Boston and runners from around the globe prepare for the race, the healing has begun on Boylston Street. But closure—or at least partial closure—is still at least 26.2 miles away.

By Brian Metzler

BOSTON STRONG

As the world turns its eyes to Boston and runners from around the globe prepare for the race, the healing has begun on Boylston Street. But closure—or at least partial closure—is still at least 26.2 miles away.

By Brian Metzler

“What is ‘Boston Strong’? I think it emphasizes that when in times of need, when tragedy strikes, the human response is inspiring.”

...says Dave McGillivray, the longtime race director for the Boston Marathon. “What happened on April 15 spurred people’s emotions to say, ‘We will not be denied, we will not be denied our running freedom.’ And that’s what we’ve seen all over the city—and all over the country, all over the world, since last April.”

Dave McGillivray

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since that fateful day in Boston. Looking back to that Monday on Boylston Street, it still feels as if it were only a few weeks ago. But it also still feels as sur­real as it did that horrible mid-April afternoon.

Think back to where you were when you heard the news about what happened in Boston last April 15 and remember what you felt. It was entirely preposterous and, even though the reality sunk in long ago, it probably still is. Aside from the tremendous shock and sorrow, we all felt violated to some degree. The purity and freedom of our most beloved activity immediately stripped to the core, leaving us exposed, defenseless and frightened.

In the aftermath of the horrific events, runners turned to running to quell the anguish and sad­ness. And it helped. Running was a way to feel good again, even if a feeling of vulnerability never really goes away. A lot of people turned their focus toward training for a marathon and many put qualifying for the 2014 Boston Marathon or running for charity on top of their priority lists.

The old saying goes that time heals all wounds, but the process is far from complete yet. The one-year anniversary of the bomb blasts on April 15 and the running of the 2014 Boston Marathon on April 21 will be monumen­tal occasions—for the victims, for runners and for the world, a chance to bring closure. It’s possible that some people—namely the hundreds of immedi­ate victims, but also the runners and spectators who witnessed the horrors firsthand—might never get complete closure. However, if you’ve followed the stories out of Boston over the past year, it’s clear a healing process is underway, especially on Boylston Street.

The images of last year’s marathon are indelibly etched in all of our memories, raw, unfiltered and still largely unfathomable.

It’s a typical Boston winter evening, with temperatures hovering in the mid-teens and a menacing wind relentlessly snarling at anyone who dares venture outside. But shortly after 6 p.m. on this late January night, runners begin assembling, seemingly without care for the weather, at Marathon Sports at 671 Boylston Street for the Wednesday night running club jaunt through the city.

One by one, or sometimes in pairs or small groups, they arrive and greet each other with smiles, hugs, high-fives and bits of catch-up conversation while making last-minute preparations for the run.

Within a half-hour, just as store manager Shane O’Hara is welcoming new runners and announcing that night’s routes, the group has swelled to more than 90 runners. Without further ado, they head out the front door for 4 to 7 miles on the streets of Boston, for what runners anywhere would consider their daily affirmation—a chance to move the legs, relax the mind and, even if for just 30 to 60 minutes, escape the stress of the real world.

But for many of the runners in this group, the Wednesday night runs from Marathon Sports are much more than that. The weekly gatherings are a continued form of personal healing and an act of collective therapy from the horrific acts of terrorism that occurred at last year’s Boston Marathon. The first bomb was set off adjacent to the finish line, just a few paces from the store’s front door, the second just two blocks down the street.

The images of last year’s marathon are indelibly etched in all of our memories, raw, unfiltered and still largely unfathomable. What was once an innocent symbol of personal challenge and a celebration of human achievement was forever stained when three people were killed and more than 250 were injured from the blasts last April 15.

But almost immediately runners everywhere dug in, running in support of the injured, wearing blue and yellow ribbons and raising money for the One Fund Boston, the principal organization benefiting victims of the bombings.

Nowhere was that collective sense of resolve through running more acute than at Marathon Sports. It was impossible to hold a group run two days after the bombings, but the following week, with Boylston Street still closed off behind police tape, many of the runners met at a nearby location to resume the runs and start the healing process. Then on May 1, just after the store reopened, more than 300 runners showed up in solidarity on the sidewalk in front of the store.

"That was amazing," O’Hara, 43, recalls, tears welling up in his eyes. "There were a lot of tears and hugs that night, but the response from the runners and the entire community was so uplifting and encouraging. We didn’t expect it—people just showed up. It was very powerful, almost overwhelming."

There is a discernable sense of connection among many of the runners in the store on this January night—many of whom were there on that first Wednesday night run after the store reopened. Tales of training runs, shared workout goals and other aspects of their common pursuit of running in this year’s Boston Marathon reveal their bonds.

But it’s clear that their emotional ties run deeper than the typical comradeship developed through running long miles together. Most of these runners were somewhere along the marathon course, (many on Boylston Street) and witnessed firsthand the horrors that took place.

For these runners, there is no escaping what happened last year. This is where they work, where they live, where they run. In the days after the bombings, it was clear their only recourse was to keep running.

"I think runners in Boston immediately had a collective notion that we’re taking the marathon back," says Lauren Oliva, 28, who was cheering on friends in last year’s race near Boylston Street and Gloucester, about a block from where the second bomb blast occurred. "There was a huge element of fear, and there was a certain element of worry. But Boston being Boston, we all just kind of said, ‘You know what? F that! This is our day. This is our race. Let’s forget this horrible thing and take it back.’"

"You know what? F that! This is our day. This is our race. Let’s forget this horrible thing and take it back."

For O’Hara and several of his Marathon Sports employees who were onsite when the first bomb went off, this year’s Boston Marathon can’t come and go soon enough. The memory of the unbearably loud blast, combined with the menacing sound of broken glass immediately mixed with the terrified screams of spectators on the sidewalk in front of the store is still fresh in his mind. It hasn’t faded with the passing of time and he’s afraid he’ll never be able to get it out of his head.

O’Hara and his colleagues were among the first to come to the aid of victims on the street, even grabbing running shirts and jackets for use as tourniquets. The store was momentarily used as a makeshift triage center for some of the victims as first responders and paramedics tried to help those with immediate needs first.

 "People from around Boston and around the world have shown amazing respect and support for us."

Still shaken by what he witnessed that day, O’Hara, who has lived in Boston since 1993, still can’t suppress deep emotional reactions when recalling the day. While he appreciates the support from the thousands of runners who have visited the store since it reopened last spring, he tries his best to avoid being engaged talking about it.

 "People from around Boston and around the world have shown amazing respect and support for us," O’Hara says. "People come into the store and they want to know about it, but at this point I have to ask people not to make me talk about it, because it still brings back so many memories no matter how many times I tell the story."

Marathon Sports owner Colin Peddie feels the pain too. He started his day at the Boylston Street store but spent most of the morning across town at another store, spending time with family and friends. He was in his truck heading back toward the Boylston Street store when he heard two bombs exploded, one in front of the shop.

"Immediately, I thought about my staff and who was working that day," he says. After speeding haphazardly across the city and parking on a grass median on Commonwealth Avenue, he found O’Hara and most the rest of his staff mingling in a state of shock.

Peddie admits he feels a bit sheepish that the store has sold so many "Boston Strong" shirts since last summer. The last thing he wants to do is profit from the horrific memories, but he sees the T-shirts as a way to spread a message of hope. Customers from near and far wanted to help carry that message throughout the running community, throughout Boston and throughout the world.

For Bostonians, he says, "Boston Strong" isn’t so much a catchy slogan worn on T-shirts as it is a way of life, a collective mantra that offers both a reassuring sense of calm and an indignant response to the terrorism that happened in their city. In recent weeks, it's been used to rally support for two Boston firefighters who perished while fighting a fire on March 26. For runners, it’s become a personal mission, almost a raison d’être that points toward the 2014 marathon.

"Boston Strong is about overcoming tragedy and working through it to become stronger than you were before," Peddie says. "It’s something that pulls us together, a common thread. It’s an energy that you draw strength from. I think it speaks to people as individuals, but also as a collective whole as a community. And that goes for the community of people at Marathon Sports, the running community and the entire city of Boston. And it reflects the overwhelming support that we have received from each of those communities."

"Boston Strong" isn’t so much a catchy slogan worn on T-shirts as it is a way of life.

The field for this year’s Boston Marathon has been expanded from 27,000 to 36,000, making it second only to the centennial race in 1996, when there were 38,708 registered runners. The B.A.A. also gave at least one race entry to each of the victims and allowed that to be transferred to a friend or family member. An estimated 10,000 runners are running for a charity, including many first-time Boston Marathoners.

Among them is Lauren Oliva, a medical staff services coordinator at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, one of the many local hospitals that treated bombing victims. She’ll be running in support of the hospital’s charity, in part to honor several colleagues who were first responders that day.

A regular Wednesday night runner and first-time Boston Marathon runner, Oliva’s been training with fellow first-time Boston runners Meagan Bufano, 36, an infectuous disease researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital who’s running to raise money for the Girls Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, and Erin Hynes, 30, who’s running to raise money for the Dick Beardsley Foundation, which educates about chemical dependency.

"I was traveling for work and couldn’t watch the race last year," recalls Hynes, a training and development professional in the healthcare industry. "I was on a plane and when I landed and turned on my phone, it couldn’t keep up with all of the texts and emails I was getting. The shock and the terror that I felt was horrifying. It was so hard to track people down. I felt selfish for not being there. All I wanted to do was turn around and come back. And I knew shortly thereafter that I wanted to run the marathon."

"No way. You can’t stop us from running. We’re still going to do it. And next year we’re going to be there and be stronger."

That powerful resolve within the running community helped spur Shannon Katzmayr to train harder than ever before and earn her first Boston qualifying time (for the 2015 race) last fall.

"The reaction immediately after it happened was: ‘No way. You can’t stop us from running.’ We’re still going to do it. And next year we’re going to be there and be stronger," says Katzmayr, a 27-year-old actuary who was watching the race with friends near Boylston and Hereford when the bombs went off. "It’s been very powerful. I love the defiance of this city and the support it gives to people."

Team One Fund Boston

In December, Marathon Sports’ Dan Soleau, Shane O’Hara and Kevin Dillion sent a proposal to the Boston Athletic Association to create a team of runners who would run the Boston Marathon while raising money for One Fund Boston. The B.A.A. accepted, and in January, 50 runners were selected from more than 370 applicants ("Everyone had an amazing story," Soleau says.) with the stipulation that each one raise at least $8,000. Most have pledged to raise between $10,000 and $25,000.

Soleau says the team represents a diverse cross section of people with various running backgrounds. They range from a bartender from a restaurant adjacent to where the second bomb went off to a managing director of a large financial firm. Some have run the Boston Marathon before, but many have never run as far as a half marathon. Marathon Sports coaches have been providing a crash-course training program, but motivation isn’t lacking.

"After the kickoff meeting, I was immediately struck by how many people had already bumped up their fundraising goals," Soleau says. "It was really remarkable to see how excited and proud people were to be a part of the team and, as a result, were that much more confident in their ability to fundraise for the One Fund."

Among the Team One Fund runners is Sarah Schoonover, a 34-year-old engineering project manager who is raising $25,000. Another is Joanie Kelly, a 45-year-old native of Watertown, the town six miles northwest of Boston where the manhunt for the terrorist suspects took place after the marathon.

Kelly, a business consultant, has 11 Boston Marathon finishes to her credit, but she didn’t run last year because she hadn’t qualified and, so, for the first time in 20 years, wasn’t watching the race on Boylston Street. Instead, she cheered on friends near Heartbreak Hill.

"It still sends chills down my spine because that could have been me," she says in a thick Boston accent. "It could have been my nephew. It could have been my brother. It really hits you when you’re from here."

"It still sends chills down my spine because that could have been me," she says in a thick Boston accent. "It could have been my nephew. It could have been my brother. It really hits you when you’re from here."

Like many Boston-area runners, Kelly was compelled to run the marathon this year, but getting into the race proved harder than she had expected. Without a recent qualifying time under her belt, she approached numerous charities only to find out they were overwhelmed with requests. She was ecstatic to be selected for the One Fund team and has already upped her fundraising goal to $15,000.

"This will be the best run of your life. I will guarantee you that."

"What happened on Boylston hit me to my core, but then three days later, there was a SWAT team at my front door, literally coming in to search my house during the manhunt," she says. "But the law enforcement and the police on TV weren’t guys you just saw on TV—they were guys I knew, guys I grew up with. It just hit home in too many ways."

Marathon Monday is a holiday known as Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts. Schools, banks and many businesses are closed. Aside from the beloved Boston Red Sox playing a game that morning, life slows down that day and the marathon takes center stage, both for runners and non-runners alike. There is a sense of civic pride and emotional ownership tied to the race that runs generations deep. For some it’s like watching the Fourth of July parade. For others—especially local college kids—it’s an all-out party.

Another aspect that makes the Boston Marathon so special is its unique point-to-point course. It starts in remote Hopkinton, a tiny village that oozes small-town charm and the history of what Boston was hundreds of years ago. Along the way, there are a dozen little towns, the vociferous Wellesley College girls, the Newton Hills near Boston College, Red Sox mania and, of course, energetic spectators lining the course.

"When I talk to people at the starting line who have never run it before, I don’t tell them anything about the specifics of the course," Kelly says. "All I tell them is that, ‘This will be the best run of your life. I will guarantee you that.’ The crowd is like nothing else; the run is like nothing else."

For runners, the culmination of that sensation is taking the left turn off of Hereford Street onto Boylston for the homestretch to the finish line. At that point, it doesn’t matter if you’re fast for your age and qualified for the race or whether you opened your heart and raised money to get in.

Runners turn that corner, see the finish line in the distance and are completely overcome by emotion. While some runners sport ear-to-ear smiles and wave to the crowd, some bite their lip and fight to hold back tears. Others openly sob as the manifestation of all of the effort and struggle it took to get to that point becomes too much to avoid. No matter if you’re a runner or a spectator, it’s impossible not to sense the deep-rooted excitement.

"It’s just pure elation all the way down Boylston, because this is the last stretch of everything you’ve worked for."

"Stand on the corner on Hereford and Boylston: You see people doing cartwheels and stopping to kiss the ground, and whether you’re a runner or a spectator, you feel that," Kelly says. "It’s just pure elation all the way down Boylston, because this is the last stretch of everything you’ve worked for."

Add to that the emotional weight carried over from last year’s Boston Marathon and this year’s run—for those immediately impacted by the bombings as well as anyone who in some way experienced the desecration of running’s most significant homestretch—and the outpouring of pure joy and lingering sorrow in the final three and a half blocks down Boylston will be palpable, if not downright overwhelming.

"The Boston Marathon is about overcoming something that, for many years has been beyond comprehension for most people," Peddie says. "And the ability to overcome such an obstacle is what makes the marathon so special. And much of what we feel in overcoming that is brought to a different level this year."

As for the store, it will be crammed with people in the days leading up to the marathon, just as it always is. Peddie has been gauging the temperament of his staff since last winter and prepping everyone for what will be an emotionally overwhelming week.

"I would be naive to think we will be able to just float right into the week of the Boston Marathon and think nothing has changed, because it has changed," Peddie says. "Whether or not I feel comfortable with it or not, I think Marathon Sports is symbolic of having overcome what happened. We’re put into a position where we need to be a leader and show strength and courage and help encourage people to know that things are going to be OK."

As for O’Hara, he’s been trying not to think about running down Boylston and crossing the finish line of his second Boston Marathon. But when he does, he envisions going back to the store to meet up with colleagues, friends and family to drink a celebratory beer. Up until last year, that beer was a good way to relax at the end of the busiest season of the year.

"My hope is that I can close this chapter and move on," he says. "I don’t know if that will ever happen because of the things that happened that day. But I envision it being a beautiful day, everything goes well, I finish and I lock the door of the store—and then Monday rolls into a normal Tuesday."

#bostonstrong14

What does this year's Boston Marathon mean to you? Answer using the hashtag #bostonstrong14 to share in the spirit of this year's Boston Marathon and help spread the word for The One Fund.

Project Editor: Brian Metzler
Text: Brian Metzler, Mario Fraioli
Photography: Scott Draper
Additional Photos: PhotoRun.net, iStock.com, Shutterstock.com
Video: Steve Godwin
Web Design: James A. Longhini
Copy Editing: Nicki Miller, Caitlyn Pilkington

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